Tess Vigeland: Jazz bassist Michael Harris had a house in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Five blocks from where a levee broke. He lost the house and everything he’d ever owned on the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
I met Harris last fall. During that trip to The Big Easy, we talked in his new house in the Upper Ninth Ward, an area known as Musicians’ Village filled with riotously colorful homes. It’s a Habitat for Humanity project conceived by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis. Over a small coffee table, he told how he survived the financial devastation of the storm.
Michael Harris: I was on tour in Brazil at the time when the storm hit. And when I got back stateside, I got as far as Dallas. And the last flight that they had coming to New Orleans, it didn’t make any sense to catch the flight. So I re-routed to Houston. En route, my luggage got lost. I arrived in Houston, literally, with the clothe son my back, my bass, my passport, my driver’s license. Thank God I had my bass with me, I had my instrument.
The area that I lived in, that was the last area that they actually allowed the citizens to return to. And when they did, they had a policy in effect that said, “Look and leave.” What struck me was that when finally when I was actually able to get back to see my home — or what was left of it — it wasn’t where I left it. I knew it was bad, but nothing could prepare me for the severity of it.
Financially, when the storm hit, no, I wasn’t prepared. I don’t think anyone was. The life of a musician is not easy. And the truth of the matter is, I really didn’t know what was gonna happen next. Financially, my survival after the storm, came from generous donations from so many different individuals and non-profits — Music Cares and so many others, Sweet Home New Orleans. I didn’t have the insurance; I didn’t even deal with the Road Home and all that kinda stuff.
I’m not the type of person who just squanders money. I really try to manage it and stretch every dollar and maximize it. That’s what helped me to survive. When things finally picked up — as far as playing gigs, working, playing music and everything — then from there I just manage and budget and that’s how I survived.
It was at least about a year before I was able to work steadily. Even that was great too, because a lot of people were saying, should they rebuild? Should the people come back or whatever? And to be back home, in this city, playing music, doing what I love to do, I just knew everything was going to be OK. I just knew it.
Not even having the opportunity to actually evacuate was like… But oddly enough, you learn to let go of the material things and what you do is you hold onto the memories and you cherish them and you hold them near and dear in your heart.
If this were to ever happen again — a storm, something of this magnitude — I think that financially, I would be in a much better place, a much better state of affairs. Yes, absolutely. My saving 10 percent of everything you earn is yours to keep — and I live by that religiously. You can set it aside, you can save it. You pay everybody else, you pay bills, you do everything that is normally required in society, but 10 percent, you’re allowed to set aside for a rainy day. And you do it and you don’t even miss it. You pay everybody else; why not pay yourself? How can you provide others, if you’re not together? And it comes back.
Right about now, I’m pretty much prepared for anything. Who knows, the next minute is not guaranteed, it’s not promised. Take nothing for granted. Enjoy as much natural and manmade beauty as possible. Enjoy life. I’m happy! I am happy, I am.
Tess Vigeland: New Orleans jazz bassist Michael Harris. That music, by the way, is his original composition.
It’s called… Unity.
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